Photo of author Paul Hebert, founding member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

“Even with the data indicating employee engagement should have the same respect and funding as say sales or marketing, companies still aren’t investing in it, and those that are, are still not seeing the promised returns. You have to ask why?” – Paul Hebert

No one wants to admit it but employee engagement is a Sisyphean effort.

It shouldn’t be. But it is.

But why is it so hard? Employee engagement should be a slam dunk.

First – the evidence is clear and pretty much incontrovertible… engaged employees contribute more to the organization than disengaged employees. Higher numbers of engaged employees drive better business results, better ROC, better ROE, higher P&E ratios, better stock performance, and improved [insert almost any business performance metric here.] I won’t bother linking to all the various studies, research, and consultants’ blogs to prove those statements since those “facts” have, if by no other reason than repetition, become as axiomatic as gravity. It is a rare study that provides causation but there is so much correlation we almost can’t ignore it.

Having more engaged employees is a good thing for companies because it makes companies more money.

You would think that would be good enough. But it isn’t. Even with the data indicating employee engagement should have the same respect and funding as say sales or marketing, companies still aren’t investing in it, and those that are, are still not seeing the promised returns.

You have to ask why?

One school of thought is that there is an issue with the exact definition of “engagement.” A simple google search should convince you that there are as many definitions as there are consultants with solutions for disengagement. But regardless of the definition you use, most if not all of the definitions rest on the same core idea – getting employees to care and contribute at a level in excess of the monetary and non-monetary expense associated with the employee.

At its core, employee engagement is an ROI calculation. Every article on employee engagement highlights the “low cost” interventions you can do as a company to drive engagement. From simply saying “thanks” to giving people free soda and foosball. Combine the “costs” of engagement with the potential benefits listed above and you have an ROI that should convince any hardened CEO or CFO of the value of engagement activities.

Yet we still don’t see real investment.

Maybe it’s a lack of clarity on how to solve the myriad of employee engagement causes?

While you may find 10s if not 100s of definitions of employee engagement, there are exponentially more suggested cures for lack of employee engagement. There are as many solutions as there were patent medicines in the early 1900s – and many are just as effective. From training, to recognition. From turkeys to transparency. There is very little that you can do today that hasn’t been twisted into an employee engagement solution. I’ve seen posts saying you should call employees by their names to help drive engagement. (see #34 on that list.) I personally believe with all this engagement talk we’re simply seeing the most recent version of the Hawthorne Effect. There is practically nothing you can do that won’t increase – or is purported to increase – employee engagement.

Unfortunately, when you have that much noise in a system – the real signal is very, very difficult if not impossible to discern.

So that could be an issue.

The net-net is this – Employee engagement is a slam dunk business decision from an “ROI” standpoint but a Pan’s Labyrinth from a definition and solution standpoint. Those could be the main reasons for a lack of wide spread engagement success. But I think it is more basic than that.

I think the real reason is time. Or more importantly – the lack of thinking about engagement within a temporal construct.

The Long Now Of Employee Engagement

What is the long now?

The long now is an idea. The long now is a way of thinking. The long now is a Foundation. The long now is a clock.

And the long now should be how we think about engagement.

A little background.

Created by Stewart Brand in 1996, The Long Now Foundation is designed to balance what Brand said was “Civilization revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.” His belief was that we are fast becoming “too fast” and we need to balance that need for speed with a focus on long-term thinking and long-term responsibility. And when Brand says “long-term” he’s talking centuries – not years. To help “get our minds around long-term thinking” he has proposed building a mechanical clock into a mountain, powered by seasonal temperature changes, where it will tick once a year, bong once a century, and a cuckoo once a millennium. (That would be a very, very old cuckoo.) This clock would be the catalyst for thinking as Brand says, “past the mental barrier of an ever shortening future.”

Brand mentions acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, and the distractions of personal multi-tasking contributing to our inability to think long-term.

And he’s right.

And that thinking is exactly why we can’t get employee engagement right.

Employee Engagement is a Long Now Solution

Employee engagement, as it is practiced today, is about offer/acceptance. Companies make an offer of flextime/no-limit vacation and the employee accepts and engagement is the reciprocal response. Much like our normal “mating” rituals, where we offer dinner and the other party accepts and offers a kiss in response. Except most companies want the full experience, if you know what I mean, immediately following the offer. That, however, is a decidedly different type of relationship. One that has legal ramifications.

The point is that most companies are trying to force the engagement process into their “normal” business time frames. Months, quarters, years.

But engagement doesn’t fit that timescale. Engagement is a much deeper relationship built over time and built with multiple offers, acceptances, counteroffers and counter-acceptances. Sometimes it is a two step forward, one step back affair. Employee engagement isn’t a “do this, get that” game.

Ask almost anyone in the “engagement” game and they will talk to you about culture and how a company’s culture is what separates them from their competition. Culture is now the competitive advantage and employee engagement is part of that culture discussion. Everyone wants to affect culture. Guide it. Manage it. Mold it. And in some cases dictate it.

However, in long now thinking – culture is second only to nature in its timescale. The Foundation has outlined what they call “layers of time.” It is a graphic designed to illustrate the various timescales available ….

As the image below shows… Nature is the longest – at the bottom. At the top is fashion – with a squiggly line illustrating that it is a rather weird path. But as you can see from the graphic… Commerce is the second shortest timescale – indicated that it is fast… very fast. And Culture – which we seek to impact with all our engagement work – is plodding along just behind Mother Nature and her million year eras.

There is a natural disconnect between business/commerce and engagement.

Long now

Employee engagement and culture is a long game.

A long, long game.

Engagement doesn’t fit reporting periods. It doesn’t fit quarterly statements or annual reports. It grows, like children grow. Slowly. Steadily. Until one day you look back and ask how did they go from the car seat to the driver’s seat. It happens over a long period of time and through many different events and experiences.

Trying to fit engagement into standard business timescale is why we lack engagement.

We need to learn from the long now project and think of engagement across years, across careers, across borders and divisions.

We need to embrace the long now of employee engagement.

That doesn’t mean we should not do things in the near term. What it means is that what we do in the near term affects the long term.

That is what long now thinking is. Knowing today and tomorrow are linked and behaving that way.

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